August 28 – Dude Looks Like A Lady

Today’s factismal: If a ladybug gets into the grapes when you make wine, it can make your Riesling taste like a Sauvignon blanc.

Ah, ladybugs! One of the joys of youth (“lady bug, lady bug, fly away home!”) and the joy of gardeners everywhere (at least until the gardener realizes that the lady bug is eating the plants and not the aphids), these amazing little critters never cease to amaze. They are full of contradictions and confusions, as you might expect for a group of beetles that includes more than 5,000 species spread over six continents.

A nine-spotted ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A nine-spotted ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

For example, their name. In England, they are lady bird beetles, named for Mary (“Our lady”) due to their red color which resembles the red cape that Mary is often depicted wearing. In Germany, the name is “Mary’s beetle” (marienkäfer). In Eastern Europe, they are called lady flies. In Scandinavia, they are lady cows (that last sounds a bit disrespectful). And in America, they are called ladybugs. But to a biologist, they are coccinellidae (“red backed beetles”).

And then there is what they eat. Though most species of ladybug feast on spider mites, aphids, and other insect pests that feed on plants, there are several species such as the Mexican bean beetle and the large leaf-eating ladybird that prefer to skip the middle-bug and eat the plant themselves! And even the ladybugs that prefer to gnaw on other insects can turn into pests once the aphids have run out; they have even been known to nibble on humans! (No word on if SyFy will turn this into a TV movie – “Ladybugtopus”.)

And then there is the ladybug’s color. Though most ladybugs are red with black spots, some are yellow or orange with black spots and a few are even black with orange spots. But in all cases, the purpose of the color remains the same; it is a warning to other critters not to eat them because they taste nasty. And that nasty taste can sometimes affect people, too. When grape pickers annoy the ladybugs, the beetles release chemicals to scare them off. If those chemicals don’t get washed off before the grapes are pressed they can make the juice bitter and like ammonia; this effect, which can make a sweet wine taste like a dry one, is known as ladybird taint.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A multicolored Asian ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

But the most confusing thing about ladybugs is how they respond to changes in their environment. In addition to the shifts in temperature and moisture caused by changes in climate, the ladybug is being stressed by (believe it or not) the ladybug! During the early part of the last century, many organic farmers introduced non-native ladybugs in an attempt to control aphids and other plant pests. Unfortunately, the non-native ladybugs had few predators and so soon started crowding out the native ladybugs. As a result, many ladybugs are becoming rarer. But biologists don’t know how rare they are.

A transverse ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A transverse ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

And that’s where you come in! The next time you are outside, look around for ladybugs. If you see one, report it at the Lost Lady Bug Project. Your garden will thank you!

August 28 – Chopped Liver

Today’s factismal: At one point, regurgitated raw hamburger meat was used to treat pernicious anemia. (Yuck!)

If you were a typical kid, odds are that your folks served you food that you didn’t want to eat. And liver and onions was probably high on that list. (It certainly was {and is} on mine!) Greasy, stinky, with a taste strong enough to lift battleships, liver and onions is near the top of any kid’s “foods I hate” list. So why in the world would parents want to subject their children to anything so odious? The answer, it turns out, is because they thought it was good for you.

Back at the turn of the last century, one of the most feared diseases was pernicious anemia. The disease was subtle and sufferers rarely showed symptoms until it was too late to cure them; a diagnosis of pernicious anemia was always a death sentence. Pernicious anemia kills by preventing the body from making enough red blood cells. Without those cells, oxygen isn’t spread through the body and carbon dioxide isn’t removed. The toxins build up and the cells break down, with symptoms that look like leukemia, depression, and heart disease (which is why it was so hard to diagnose – it masqueraded as so many other diseases).

The way pernicious anemia worked was by reducing the transport of cobalamin from food into the body via the gut. It turns out that there is a special protein known as intrinsic factor secreted by the stomach of healthy people that joined to the cobalamin in food and made it easier for the gut to absorb it. From there, the cobalamin would be incorporated into the process of building red blood cells. But if you had a stomach ulcer or other health problem, then you weren’t able to secrete enough intrinsic factor to absorb the cobalamin.

The way that this was discovered was a Scottish doctor by the name of William Castle who ate a pound of raw hamburger, waited an hour, and then forced himself to throw it up. He then fed the “procesed” raw hamburger to ten very brave patients and “unprocessed” raw hamburger to another group of volunteers. The group that got the processed batch was able to recover from the pernicious anemia, demonstrating the stomach’s role in this mess. And that remained the only treatment for pernicious anemia for thirteen years.

Fortunately for patients and children everywhere, George Whipple was doing research on blood loss and discovered that anemic dogs recovered faster if they were fed a diet of raw liver. He then tried feeding pernicious anemia patients a diet rich in raw liver and saw that they also improved. His work was then taken up by other researchers, most notably George Minot and William Murphy, who turned it into a reliable treatment. Today, injections of cobalamin (now known as vitamin B12) take the place of piles of raw liver, but the basis remains the same. For their work, Whipple, Minot, and Murphy were awarded the 1934 Nobel Prize in Medicine. And, for our sins, parents everywhere began feeding their children liver and onions in an attempt to prevent pernicious anemia.

Of course, pernicious anemia isn’t the only condition that needs treatment; there are thousands of other diseases that still haven’t been cured. And the only way to cure them is to give the doctors the information that they need via a site such as Cure Together. Register there and you can provide details on your ailments that doctors will use to create new treatments (regurgitated raw hamburger not included).

August 27 – School Daze

Today’s factismal: There are 49,600,000 school kids in the USA; 91% of them will graduate high school.

At first blush, the number of schoolchildren that graduate high school looks good. Out of the 49.6 million children who are school age, we can expect 45.1 million to get a high school diploma. Why is that important? Because a high school diploma is the first step on the road to self-sufficiency. If you don’t graduate from high school, then you’ll earn a paltry$22,900 each year. But sticking through that tedious English class long enough to get that sheepskin will raise your earnings to $30,000 – that’s a 31% raise for just turning in your homework!

And things get even better if you stick around long enough to get a college degree. How does $46,900 a year sound? Suddenly, that new car sounds a lot more affordable, doesn’t it? And if you choose the right field, you can earn lots more. A new geologist in the oil and gas industry will earn $99,000 a year (forget the new car – you can have a new plane!). But it all depends on education, which depends on teachers.

Want more money? Stay in school!

Want more money? Stay in school!

And that’s where citizen science comes in. There are a number of resources for teachers that will help them get those little hellions to understand concepts such as mass, gravity, Avogadro’s number, and black body temperature. But teachers need interested parents (that’s you) to let them know that the resources exist. So do your part and point your kids’ teachers toward the follow resources – unless, of course, you want your kids to live in your basement for the rest of your life!
Physics Songs
Simple geophysics demonstrations
Chemistry demonstrations
Biology demonstrations
Math and science demonstrations
Sing about science
ZooTeach (A Zooniverse project)

August 26 – Diamond Bright

Today’s factismal: It was once thought that things burned by releasing phlogiston.

If I were to ask you what water is made up of, odds are you’d tell me “H2O”. But did you ever stop to wonder how we know that? The answer is “Thanks to Antoine Lavoisier, who would be 270 years old today”. Known as “the father of modern chemistry”, Antoine had a quick mind and an inquisitive spirit that was willing to do things that no-one else dared. When he was born, the standard explanation for why things burn was that there was a “spirit” in them known as phlogiston that was generated heat and light as it was released; what was left over was known as calx. But Antoine wasn’t satisfied with that explanation. Why should metal gain weight when they lost phlogiston?

Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry (Image courtesy Library of Congress)

Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry
(Image courtesy Library of Congress)

Using a set of closed flasks, Antoine was able to show that gasses such as oxygen and nitrogen had different weights; before his work, everyone had thought that they were weightless or had the same weight. Even better, he was able to show that combining the different elements created new materials that had weights which could be found from the amount of each that was used. By changing chemistry from a purely qualitative science (“this plus this gives that”) to a quantitative one (” two parts hydrogen plus one part oxygen gives one part water”), he started chemists on the road to controlling the reactions and creating materials such as plastics, fertilizers, and light-weight alloys.

One of Antoine’s most famous experiments was also one of his most audacious. He wanted to prove that diamonds were made up of nothing but carbon. So he placed a large diamond into a flask and filled the flask with oxygen before sealing it. He then used a magnifying glass to set fire to the diamond. (Don’t try this at home!) After the diamond had finished burning, he was able to show that the resulting gas was the same that was produced when carbon was burned.

Sadly, Antoine’s contributions to science made him both famous and infamous. Because he lived in France during the time of the Revolution and because he came from an aristocratic family, he was soon tried on trumped-up charges and executed. Though the state formally pardoned him a year later, it nevertheless put an end to a career that changed the world.

If you’d like to honor Antoine’s memory, then why not go do a chemistry experiment today? The ACS has a website chock-full of stinky, smelly, chemistry fun:

August 25 – All Natural

Today’s factismal: The berries of some species of viburnum are highly prized for jams and jellies but the berries of other viburnum species can kill you.

One of the prettiest plants in many a Northeasterner’s garden is the viburnum. This fast-growing shrub has showy flowers with an enchanting fragrance and berries that, while always colorful, range from delicious to deadly. But if you leave the berries to the birds, you’ll still appreciate the plant for its plentiful shade and the gentle arcs of color its leaves and flowers make. Or at least, you will until the viburnum leaf beetle gets to it!

Viburnum in flower (My camera)

Viburnum in flower
(My camera)

As with so many other pests, the viburnum leaf beetle is an invasive species. It was accidentally introduced into North America in 1947, and has slowly been munching its way across the country. The viburnum leaf beetle is an ugly little critter and leaves tell-tale scars on the plants it attacks. While the adults eat the leaves of the viburnum, the larvae feed on the plant from the inside. That’s because the female viburnum leaf beetle plants the eggs into the plant by chewing a series of small round holes on the bottom of twigs before placing the eggs inside and sealing them up with her poop mixed with sawdust to wait out the winter. The larvae emerge in the spring and begin gnawing on leaves before dropping to the ground to pupate after which they emerge and once more begin eating their fill of viburnum.

An infestation can denude a viburnum plant fairly quickly, and repeated infestations can kill it entirely. Because the pest is spreading, both entomologists and botanists are seeking help form concerned citizen scientists like you. If you’d like to help track the spread of the viburnum leaf beetle, head over to Cornell’s Viburnum Leaf Beetle website:

August 24 – The (Not So) Big One

Today’s factismal: A magnitude 6.0 earthquake just rocked the San Francisco bay area.


Seismograms of the event (Image courtesy IRIS REV)

Seismograms of the event
(Image courtesy IRIS REV)

At about 3:30 AM, or about the time most techies are putting their computers to sleep, a strong earthquake hit the Bay area. Though there has been plenty of damage and a few fires, so far there are only two major injuries reported along with about seventy smaller ones. Here’s what we know as of right now:

1. The earthquake was a magnitude 6.0, which makes it about 1/23th as strong as the 1989 Oakland temblor and 1/500th as strong as the 1906 event. (Remember that earthquakes are measured on a logarithmic scale, not a linear one.) This event was also 180 times stronger than the largest earthquake in the recent Oklahoma swarm.

Location of main event and aftershocks (Image courtesy USGS)

Location of main event and aftershocks
(Image courtesy USGS)

2. There have already been six aftershocks; we can expect to see another 1,000 or so before the series is done. Earthquakes happen because of strain. To understand this, take a strand of uncooked spaghetti by both ends and slowly move the ends together. This puts stress on the spaghetti which ends up deforming its shape; that’s the strain, building up. When enough strain has built up, the spaghetti will snap. The same thing happens in the Earth. As plates move against each other in places like the San Andreas fault, they cause strain to build up. When there is a major earthquake, it releases strain on one part of the fault but it adds strain to other parts. If one of those other parts gets enough strain, it will have an earthquake, too.

A week's worth of earthquakes in California (Image courtesy SCEC)

A week’s worth of earthquakes in California
(Image courtesy SCEC)

3. The reason that there were so few casualties is because California has a lot of earthquakes and a reasonably smart government. California has learned from previous earthquakes and has mandated that new buildings must be constructed so that they can resist the shaking that comes from an earthquake of this size. In addition, California requires that hot water heaters and other large household equipment be tied down so that it can’t be tipped over during an earthquake ; this reduces the number of fires and other damage considerably. If California buildings had been built with unreinforced masonry, then we’d be looking at a death toll in the thousands. Instead, we’ve got two serious injuries and a bunch of minor ones.

A view of the San Andreas fault near Parkfield, CA (My camera)

A view of the San Andreas fault near Parkfield, CA
(My camera)

4. The earthquake didn’t happen on the San Andreas fault but it did happen because of the San Andreas fault. California is located right where two different plates (the outermost parts of the solid Earth; think of them as giant bumper cars gliding on the top of the mantle) slide past each other. This creates a lot of strain and earthquakes. Thanks to the way the Earth works, that big fault also creates a lot of little secondary faults; in some cases, those faults have smaller faults of their own. And that’s where this event took place – not on the San Andreas or one of its main subfaults but on a subfault of a subfault.

5. The cost of this earthquake will be about $300 million dollars. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused nearly $6,000 million in damage but it took place in an area with a higher population density and was much stronger than this one.

Of course, there are lots of things that we don’t know about earthquakes. How does one earthquake trigger another? How does the strain get transmitted across the globe? (We used to think that this didn’t happen, but now we’ve got some pretty convincing evidence that in certain limited cases, it may.) How can we predict when an earthquake will happen? (We’re really, really good on where; it is when that is causing us consternation.) And what we need in order to answer those questions is your help. When you are in an earthquake, please go to the USGS Did You Feel It page and fill out a report. That will help us know just how far the effects of any given earthquake were felt which will help us do a better job of ensuring that the next earthquake is even less costly than this one was.


August 23 – Bardarbing, Bardarbang, Bardarbunga!

Today’s factismal: The Bardarbunga volcano in Iceland has begun to erupt!

If you are a geologist, these are exciting times. Not only do we finally have a theory that explains how mountains and volcanoes form, we’ve got all kinds of instruments that helps us gather the data we need to test the theory and make it better. (That’s what scientists do, you know – we hatch ideas, carefully feed them on data until they become hypotheses, and then test them with yet more data leaving only the strongest behind as theories. And then we start all over again with the ideas that the theory spawns.)  Thanks to the Cold War, we’ve got seismometers located all across the globe; though they were put there to detect atomic bomb tests, they also record earthquakes which helps us learn more about the inside of the Earth. And thanks to the Cold War, we’ve got satellite altimetry across the globe; though it was created to help us detect bomb craters, it also helps us to measure how the Earth’s surface tilts and where things in the upper crust are moving. And thanks to the Cold War, we’ve got satellites that measure the change in gravity; though they were created to help track submarines (and to make our missiles more accurate), they also tell us where materials in the Earth change density. And, thanks to the Cold War (do you detect a theme here?), we’ve got GPS; though it was created to help the military move around, it also helps us track the movement of continents and mountains. And all of that data has lead in turn to a deeper understanding of the Earth.

And though a lot of that understanding is purely academic, such as the discovery that there is the equivalent of three ocean’s worth of water stored in the minerals of the Earth’s mantle, a surprising amount of it is very practical indeed. Understanding how the plates move around on the Earth has led to discovering new deposits of gold, silver, and diamonds (not to mention oil and gas), and to learning which areas are most at risk for earthquakes and volcanoes. Even better, it has helped us learn how to predict volcanic eruptions (we’re still working on predicting the timing of earthquakes). One of our earliest successes was Mt. St Helens; the scientists in the area were able to predict the eruption and save the life of everyone who was willing to evacuate. And today we have another example of that science at work in the eruption of Bárðarbunga (Bardarbunga {bar-dar-BUNG-ah!} to everyone but the Icelandics).

Like Mt. St Helens, Bardarbunga is a stratovolcano. That means that it is a tall, cone-shaped volcano made up of alternating layers of ash and lava fed from a subterranean magma chamber that sometimes erupts explosively (creating the ash) and sometimes erupts more passively (pouring out the lava). These are among the most common volcanoes on Earth and create some of the most spectacular eruptions (e.g., Krakatoa) as well as some of the least interesting ones (e.g., Stromboli, “the lighthouse of the Mediterranean”). Where Bardarbunga and Mt. St Helens differ is that Mt. St Helens is created by plate tectonics and Bardarbunga is created by a mantle plume. (That’s part of the “testing the theory” we discussed.) Where plate tectonic volcanoes are formed when subducting plates release a little water that stimulates magma production which then creates the volcano, mantle plume volcanoes are created by extra-light material coming from deep within the mantle. We’re still arguing over why mantle plumes should exist, as well as how many of them there are; everyone agrees on Iceland (where Bardarbunga is) and Hawai’i, but that’s it.

Location of earthquakes around the Bardarbunga volcano (Image courtesy aaaa)

Location of earthquakes around the Bardarbunga volcano
(Image courtesy Iceland Met Office)

The number of earthquakes per day (Image courtesy Iceland Met Office)

The number of earthquakes per day
(Image courtesy Iceland Met Office)


One thing that we’re not arguing over is that Bardarbunga is erupting. Starting about two weeks ago, seismologists noticed that the number of earthquakes, and especially the shallow earthquakes, in the area had taken a steep jump upward. Because adding magma to a region “stretches” the surface material, you always hear creaks and groans in the form of small earthquakes when it happens. In addition, the geophysicists in the area using GPS had noticed that the ground was starting to tilt; that’s another strong hint that there was magma moving into the area. And so Iceland raised the eruption threat to “Orange” (right below “Red” or “Watch out – the lava’s a’coming!”).

Today, the eruption threat was raised to Red as a small plume of ash and smoke was seen coming from the ice covering Bardarbunga. And that is the second important way that Bardarbunga differs from Mt. St Helens. Where Mt. St Helens had a light dusting of snow on its top, not more than a hundred feet thick, Bardarbunga is buried beneath a glacier; this is even more impressive when you realize that the volcano’s top lies 6,600 ft above sea level. The Vatnajökull (vat-na-JOKE-ull) glacier covering the volcano averages 1,300 ft thick and so forms a most excellent plug over the volcano. And that means that we may get an great view of a subglacial eruption!

Satellite image of Iceland; Bardarbunga is in the middle of the large chunk of ice (Image courtesy NASA)

Satellite image of Iceland; Bardarbunga is in the middle of the large chunk of ice
(Image courtesy NASA)

When hot lava meets cold ice, several things, all of which are fascinating, happen. The heat from the lava can melt the ice, forming a subglacial lake that eventually breaks through and rushes downhill like a crazed wet, weasel; this “jökulhlaup” (“glacier run” {yokel-oop}) can carve valleys and denude meadows faster than a politician can pocket a bribe. If there is enough ash mixed in the water, it forms a lahar which is basically a mud flood moving sixty miles an hour and not stopping for directions;in 1985, a lahar killed 23,000 people in Columbia. If the lava is erupted more quickly than the water can drain, then the heat may cause the water to turn into steam creating a steam explosion. This can then fling pieces of lava as large as a house for miles around.

Even if none of these things happen, the volcano will still put out ash and carbon dioxide and other particulates. The ash can make flying hazardous as the sharp edges eat away at jet turbine blades and propellers and literally sand-blast windshields into opacity. It is for this reason that planes are directed to fly well away from any erupting volcano. The carbon dioxide may seem like a lot, but it is actually relatively little. If this is a typical volcanic eruption, then it will put out about 500,000 m3 of lava and will eject about 8,300 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, along with 2,000 tons of SO2 and 6,300 tons of H2O. In comparison, a car emits about 5.5 tons of CO2 per year, so Bardarbunga will add less CO2 than the amount generated by Houston traffic over the length of the eruption. But the SO2 is particularly interesting. As Franklin suggested back in 1784, volcanoes can cool the planet. We are still arguing about how they do so, but we know that the SO2 plays a key part. It acts to reflect sunlight back into space, helping to cool the planet. But such effects are short-lived; when Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it cooled the Earth by nearly 0.7°F but temperatures were back to normal by 1993.

So right now we’ve got an erupting volcano with lots of potentially interesting effects. Grab the popcorn and stay tuned!

August 29 Update: The eruption has subsided and Iceland has reduced the threat level to “orange” (possibly dangerous but not certain).